ALAN McROBIE AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 1080

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2007

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Misleading

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Alan McRobie of Rangiora against The Press, Christchurch about the consequences of an abridgement of an opinion piece he wrote for the newspaper and subsequent treatment of his efforts to correct the position.

Background
Mr McRobie offered to submit an article to The Press about issues arising out of a representation review process conducted by Environment Canterbury. The Press agreed. Mr McRobie’s first effort was judged too long by the assistant editor; a second was withdrawn by Mr McRobie when the parameters on which he had argued his case were changed by the announcement of Environment Canterbury’s final proposals for the representation review. A third submission was accepted by The Press and published on 8 November 2006 with a paragraph cut out in the editing process - due to a lack of space.

The excised paragraph contained references to the Local Electoral Act and the right of appeal to the Local Government Commission. The article as published, with Mr McRobie’s suggestions for new arrangements, thus left the impression that he was not familiar with existing procedures nor with where his proposals would fit with the role of the Local Government Commission. The point was promptly taken up by a correspondent to the newspaper noting that the article had a ‘serious omission’ and was accordingly ‘misleading’ since it failed to note that a right of appeal to the Local Government Commission already existed. That letter was published on 10 November under the heading ‘You can appeal’.

The Complaint
Mr McRobie that morning (a Friday) submitted a letter to the editor by e-mail. He agreed that the correspondent was right and – to put the record straight - repeated the wording of the paragraph from his original article which he noted had been edited out. On Monday when his letter had not been published in either the Weekend or the Monday editions of the paper he wrote a personal e-mail (Dear Paul) to the editor. Since the “serious omission” sprang from an editorial decision by the newspaper then the newspaper should have taken steps to put the record straight by prompt publication of his letter “in a prominent position”.

The letter submitted on the Friday was duly published on the following Tuesday (14 November) under a different heading – “Point Covered”. Mr McRobie sent a further Dear Paul letter that day complaining that the newspaper had avoided making any formal acknowledgement that the paragraph in question had been excised in the sub editing process. He asked that the newspaper “acknowledge formally and publicly that it was your staff decision that resulted in the omission of what was a critical paragraph.” The editor replied the next day that he believed the matter had been handled correctly, readers, were now aware that the article had been edited and a paragraph deleted: as far as he was concerned the matter was closed.

Alan McRobie does not dispute that newspapers may be obliged to make editorial amendments of this kind. His complaint to the Press Council on 4 December centred on the claim the editor had failed to deal adequately with the “aftermath” of his original article as published. He thought it not unreasonable to ask that the paper acknowledge that the omission which had led to his article being labelled “misleading” stemmed from an editorial decision.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor of The Press contended in his letter to the Press Council of 21 December that Mr McRobie’s article and letter had been handled in a standard journalistic manner. Publication of his letter of 10 November on the third publication day after receipt did not represent an unusual delay. Because of various pressures to do with weekend publication the Letters for the Saturday and Monday editions had to be selected on Thursday evening and processed on Friday morning. Mr McRobie had been contacted on the Monday morning [actually in the afternoon] about the apparent omission of a verb from the opening sentence of his letter. When this point had been cleared up the letter was published the next day. The editor also suggested that the criticism of Mr McRobie’s article from the correspondent would have been valid, even if the paragraph in question had not been omitted. Mr McRobie had advocated the need for an independent body to review local authority boundaries and had mentioned the role of the Local Government Commission as an appeal authority without noting that it also had the power to make reviews.

The Complainant’s Reply
Mr McRobie disputed the point made by the editor in relation to the actual powers of the Local Government Commission and raised a number of other issues on which the Press Council is unable to form an opinion. His central contention remained: The Press had failed to make readers aware that the point raised in the correspondent’s letter had been dealt with in the paragraph excised for the newspaper’s editorial purposes.

The Press Council’s Finding
It is indisputable that the newspaper acted promptly and in a responsive way to publish Mr McRobie’s letter. On the other hand it is evident that Mr McRobie believes that the way the complaint was handled failed to clarify the issue. His article had been held up as “meaningless” - through no fault of his own.

The Press Council accepts nevertheless that by printing Mr McRobie’s letter in full and as soon as practicable the newspaper had implicitly acknowledged to its readers its own role and responsibility.

The Press Council believes that newspapers do themselves and their readers a service by owning up to mistakes, editorial slip-ups, or errors of omission. The Council is pleased to note that The Press intends to introduce such a feature.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and John McClintock.

Keith Lees took no part in the consideration of this complaint.